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The Uses of History

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I finally settled in to a book, and the book I found is called The Concord Quartet. It’s by Samuel A. Schreiner, Jr., and it has a lot of virtues given my state of mind.  For one thing, it’s relatively short.  For another, it’s very cleanly written.  And for a third, it’s one of the books I have stacked up to read for the essays I’m writing on the New England Renaissance.

But there’s soemthing else this book is:  it’s the kind of history we used to get in school before everybody got all sophisticated and confrontation.  That is, it’s a celebration of America, a presentation of the people and ideas involved in the Transcendentalist movement that accentuates the positive in every possible way.

One of the reasons I’m interested in the Transcendentalist movement, and in that entire New England flowering in the years just preceding the Civil War, is that it was our first flirtation with what we later called the Sixties Counterculture.

These were people who founded communes and went back to the land, who ditched orthodox Christianity for “spirituality” that saw God in every man and woman, who championed the emancipation of women and the emancipation of slaves.

And they were, as well, tourists at the revolution, or a lot of them were.  (Hawthorne, for all his faults, had more sense.)

Many of the New England Transcendentalists praised and feted John Brown the way Leonard  Bernstein and company entertained the Black Panthers.  Unwilling to engage in violence themselves, squeamish almost to the point of risibility, they romanticized it in Brown and romanticized it as a response to the continued existence of slavery in the south.

A lot f people like to say that the Sixties were a total waste, that nothing good or constructive came out of them, that they ruined the country.

But that isn’t true, any more than it would be true to say that Transcendentalism was a total waste.

The  Sixties brought equal rights for women in a way even Susan B. Anthony never imagined was possible, and they pushed for full equality for African Americans, which was a good thing, too.

It wasn’t wrong for the Transcendentalists to be opposed to slavery, or to champion total abolition instead of one of the more cautious approaches favored by even most of he anti-slavery politicans in Washington.  Thoreaus essay “Slavery in Massachusetts” is one of the great moral manifestoes in American literature, and when Emerson emerged from his fuzzy moods to write straightforwardly, he produced significant defenses of reason, science, education and political equality.

But here’s the thing–to the extent that there was anything not quite admirable in all these people, it is hardly mentioned in the book I’m reading.  The bad parts have been carefully excised out, or are presented in such a way as to make them seem negligible.

There is nothing particularly odd about this approach.  Up until a few years ago, this was the way history textbooks for elmentary and high schools were written, and going straight through the 1950s, there was a fair amount of history for adult general audiences that did the same.

Every culture has to recruit its members to its own defense, and this is one of the ways to do it.   There’s nothing more honest about accentuating the negative, which is what a lot of textbooks do now.

Somehow, however, it still bothers me.  I read about Bronson Alcott and the wonderful experiment at Fruitlands and I can’t forget that this was a feckless and destructive man, who made the lives of his wife and children miserable.  This was the man who told his daughter Louisa May that she was the evil one because she was dark instead of blonde like her sisters, who periodically called family meetings to announce that he didn’t believe in marriage and was going to leave it, who could never be bothered to make a living and lived most of his life off the generosity of Emerson.

Then there is the matter of John Brown, presented here, as he was in my fifth grade history class, as a fierty, righteous crusader for justice whose tactics may have been a little extreme but whose heart was in the right place.

In reality, Brown was a thug, and he’d raised his sons in the same mold.  He had no compunction about cold blooded murder as long as the victim could somehow be connected to “slavery,” even if the connection was so tenuous as merely being suspected of intending to vote in favor of it in Kansas.

Brown wasn’t a Transcendentalist, of course, but many of the Transcendalists loved him, supported him with money and aid, and were willing to pay to have him speak to them.  They threw parties for him.   They protested the attempts of the federal government to capture and stop him and in one case they helped him avoid arrest.

Like the guests at Lenoard Bernstein’s famous party more than a hundred years later, too many of them were thrilled to be standing right next to a “real” revolutionary, the kind that got blood on his hands.

I think there’s good reason to celebrate the Concord writers and the people who helped them and followed them.  They represent the first truly  American culture we ever had.  They gave us our first serious novelists and poets, and the essays of  Emerson and Thoreau outline a distinctly American sensibility in politics and morals.  

I’m not so happy with the idea that we should present these people as if they had no flaws, or as if what they wrote and thought was wonderful just because it happens to be ours.  

For one thing, there’s the danger that readers or students will stumble upon the darker side of the truth eventually, and will, in reaction, decide that “real” is just the bad and not the good.

For another thing, the lives and works of the New England Transcendalists have a lot to tell us about the culture the Sixties wrought.  The issues in politics and morals  then were very similar to what we’re ealing with now.

And, most of all, I think, there’s virtue in letting people understand that real life is not a children’s movies, that people who are truly great in some aspects of their lives are often condemnable in others. 

Or something like that.

Written by janeh

April 4th, 2009 at 7:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'The Uses of History'

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  1. I’ve actually spent a day at Fruitlands, which is preserved as it was when Thoreau and the rest were there. It seems today an idealized place, as it must have then. Tranquil, civilized, conducive to long thoughts and plenty of time to write. Standing in the same room, looking out the same window, next to the desk where Thoreau wrote is an interesting experience.

    But the sense I got was that the experiment failed not because the ideals weren’t realized, but because there was nothing BUT ideals. Nobody wanted to (or wanted to have the type of people around who were willing to) shovel the manure and slop the pigs. They wanted to get back to the land, but they didn’t really want to touch the dirt, if you get what I’m talking about. I’ve read that many of the Sixties communes suffered and failed for the same reasons.

    I understand what you’re saying about presenting biased history, though. It used to be that anything Americans did was wonderful. Now it seems turned 180 degrees and everything we did was awful. Westward expansion and exploration or native genocide? Triumph in WWII or massive nuclear overkill?

    Simplistic explanation in earlier grades is easy to understand. Complex issues aren’t part of children’s lives, and they aren’t built to grok gray areas. I’m not sure that even in higher grades the teachers themselves are equipped or enabled to adequately discuss the gray areas. In a survey course of American history, do you *really* have enough time to explore all the causes of the Civil War? Do you have students of sufficient maturity to understand the interlocking issues?

    Without introducing some bias, history ends up being confusing at every turn, especially for younger students. Truly mature history buffs can read conflicting material and make their own assessments, can accept and understand often contradictory causes and effects. Is it realistic to expect, though, that any single writer would not bring a bias to what they write? That’s why we have to read more widely. It would be great if younger students could do so, but I don’t see that happening.

    Part of the joy of getting older (there are so few, I try to make the most of the ones there are) is being able to read something new, and have the depth of experience to make connections to everything I’ve learned before. New learning enriches my entire past. Or perhaps it’s the other way around.

    But you gotta serve the time to make that work. For younger people, it just doesn’t work that way.


    4 Apr 09 at 3:11 pm

  2. Three cheers.
    In fairness to the historians, though, it’s hard to get right–especially in relatively modern periods and broad movements. There are subjects where a historian can write essentially everything we know about a subject, and include all the source material as appendices, but for something like Transcendentalism, writing a history is mostly a matter of leaving things out. And if the important thing about the movement is its spirituality or its promotion of Abolition, then Bronson Alcott’s personal life doesn’t deserve much space. It’s easy to go from writing a positive history of a movement to a whitewash without crossing a clear line.

    The reverse holds true, of course. if the important thing about the countercultural politics of the 1960’s is that they inflicted damage from which the nation may never recover, then the Second Civil Rights Act ought not to get much space. Honest but negative history shades into muckraking.

    And if you make neutrality of presentation your goal, you wind up “balancing” the Holocaust against the autobahn system, and discussing Hitler’s relatively blameless personal life. Yes, I’ve seen real-life examples only marginally less ludicrous.

    All I can conclude is that the historian should be as honest and thorough as possible, and the reader should try for at least two–as far apart as possible.
    It’s binocular vision which lets us perceive depth.


    4 Apr 09 at 3:59 pm

  3. It’s an interesting point. I used to love the books about heroes that they wrote for children – especially the early explorers and the few women who got tossed in – Queen Elizabeth and Boadicea and some Americans like Clara Barton. Later, of course, I learned that a lot of the early explorers were inspired by a desire for fame or fortune or perhaps a need for a job, and some actually faked their reports.

    Oddly enough, this didn’t bother me as much as the discover that there was yet another model of the atom to ‘learn’ after all the previous ‘this is what an atom is’ that I had learned.

    But they’re both similar approaches, aren’t they? As a child, I learned simplified versions of history and the kinds of things that are considered admirable or even heroic, just as I learned a simplified version of what matter was. As I grew older and gained more experience and read more books, I learned more.

    Surely there is a place for both approaches! Of course, there are dangers. I know that the person who controls which simplified version is given to school children moulds the entire culture, and if children’s school stories are taken as the last word in history, adults may believe a lot of highly selective and simplified stuff. But the alternative – making sure everything is true and balanced – is impossible.

    I recently realized, with some bemusement, that a Canadian intellectual has pronounced that our entire history has been badly misunderstood. We’re really a Metis nation. I suspect that’s a highly selective as the children’s version I read years ago, but I haven’t read the book myself. I did read a really scathing review, though.


    4 Apr 09 at 4:16 pm

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